Ruben Amaro: Alternate Reality 2013 Executive of the Year

Genius at work - Jeff Zelevansky

In a realm beyond the knowable world, the Phillies are still playing--led by Victorino, Pence, Lee, Santana and Liriano. It all adds up to a well-deserved award for their visionary GM.

Among the lesser-known of SBN's systemwide assets is an interdimensional fax machine, through which we occasionally receive news releases of events from alternate universes. Most of these are of scant interest to your average Phillies fan: Brandon McCarthy transmigrating into a giant pulsing brain that terraforms a thousand square mile stretch of the American southwest, Yasiel Puig's Nobel win for literature, Tony La Russa becoming Commissioner and mandating a four-hour minimum for all MLB games, et cetera. But we thought this one was worth passing along. Enjoy:

November 11, 2013

Earning yet another accolade to cap off a sweet season of redemption, Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was announced as Major League Baseball’s Executive of the Year in New York City today. Amaro’s Phillies rebounded from a .500 season in 2012 to win 93 games, claim the National League wild card and upend the Cardinals and Dodgers in the playoffs before falling to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series last month.

Amaro resisted increasingly shrill calls to break up his aging dynasty throughout the 2012 season and the following winter, instead retaining key players from the team that won five straight NL East division crowns from 2007-11 while supplementing them with low-profile but canny trades and free agent signings, and timely promotions from a minor league system that proved far better than advertised.

"Sometimes the best way to move ahead is to stand your ground," Amaro said on a call from the Caribbean, where he is enjoying a vacation with his twin 23 year-old "step-nieces," both swimsuit models.

As the Phils fell from the heights of the National League during the 2012 season, fans watched with increasing dismay as Amaro refused to make major changes despite an expensive roster replete with players in their thirties. Amaro swore up and down that the offers simply weren’t there for any of his veteran stars: not outfielders Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, not veteran lefty ace Cliff Lee. Only mid-rotation starter Joe Blanton was moved, and that after the deadline. Amaro’s inactivity somewhat paid off as injured vets Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay returned to action and the Phillies rebounded from a 37-51 start to briefly push into playoff contention, but they faded at the end to finish with a .500 record, the team’s first non-winning season since 2002.

During the offseason, despite a steadily rising drumbeat of criticism from media, bloggers and fans, Amaro moved quickly to keep his lineup intact. Just weeks after the season’s end, re-signed Pence to a three-year, $39 million deal and extended a qualifying offer to centerfielder Victorino, which the longtime Phillie accepted.

The most significant trade Amaro did make actually made the majors’ oldest team even older. In November, he dealt young starter Vance Worley and pitching prospects Trevor May and Austin Wright to the LA Angels of Anaheim for veteran starter Ervin Santana, outfielder Peter Bourjos and $3 million. He also moved starter Kyle Kendrick to the Rockies for reliever Matt Reynolds and pitching prospect Chad Bettis. In free agency, he bought low on oft-injured lefty starter Francisco Liriano, and took a chance on veteran third baseman Eric Chavez to platoon with 2012 holdover Kevin Frandsen.

"Depth is important," Amaro said at a January event for season ticketholders. "We do have an older team. But we have some younger talent that can fill out the bench. When you’re a large-market team like we are, you can do some things depth-wise, and if our guys miss time—as older players tend to do—the players we have coming up should be able to step in. We’re going to give them a chance to do so."

Sure enough, the only Phillie to play every game in 2013 was Pence. But backup outfielders Bourjos and Brandon Moss—whom Amaro picked up off the scrap heap after the 2010 season—did an admirable job through minor injuries to Victorino and emerging young star left fielder Domonic Brown. Frandsen, Darin Ruf, Freddy Galvis and Erik Kratz held the fort as veterans Chavez, Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard all missed time with lesser or greater injuries. Later in the season, rookie Cody Asche was called up from triple-A to man third base and held the job through the club’s playoff run, swatting a walkoff double to beat Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen in the decisive Game Five of the NLCS. In all, seven Phillies reached double digits in home runs, led by Brown and Pence who slugged 27 each.

But it was the pitching that really made the difference for the Phillies in 2013. The rotation front four of Lee,Santana, Cole Hamels and Liriano combined to pitch more than 800 innings, more than making up for Halladay’s season-long struggles with injury and ineffectiveness. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Halladay’s primary replacement, rookie Jonathan Pettibone, was worth a win and a half over replacement, essentially negating Halladay’s struggles. Lee redeemed his loss in Game Two of the 2011 Division Series against the Cardinals, beating St. Louis twice in this year’s rematch to send the Cardinals home and taking a hard-luck loss with eight innings of one-run ball in the Tigers’ 1-0 win to clinch the World Series.

The bullpen also emerged as an area of strength. While closer Jonathan Papelbon was just okay, and lefty specialist Antonio Bastardo earned a surprise suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs before coming back to dominate in October with eight scoreless innings, setup man Jason Grilli continued his late-career renaissance in Philadelphia to form a solid late-inning combo with the lefty Reynolds. Youth had its day here as well, with emerging relievers Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman and B.J. Rosenberg all stepping up to claim meaningful innings down the stretch.

Perhaps most surprising given the team’s situation just a year ago, the Phillies re-emerged as a power in the NL while improving their longer-term outlook. While Ruiz, Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Lee all sit in their mid-30s, the outfield of Brown, Victorino and Pence should remain as the team’s offensive wheelhouse for some time to come, and Asche, Galvis and Ruf all have upside as first-division regulars. The rotation behind Lee looks promising as well, with Hamels, Santana and Liriano all squarely in their primes and Pettibone and top prospect Jesse Biddle around to back them up. And after a disastrous bullpen performance in 2012, the Phillies look positively loaded in the ‘pen now; Amaro has made noises about trading from his depth to further refurbish the lineup this winter.

"I’m honored and humbled to accept this award," the GM said from his vacation. "We often characterize ourselves as a scouting organization first and foremost, and while I’m the man in the pictures who receives the accolades and gets to escort these two delightful young women with whom I’m currently lying on this private beach, it’s a tribute to our entire front office and scouting team. You don’t just luck into players like Brandon Moss and Jason Grilli emerging in mid-career as contributors to a pennant winner. You don’t just find late-draft gems like Darin Ruf and Jake Diekman, and you don’t just fool some other GM in lifting a Santana or a Bourjos or a Reynolds. There’s no substitute for getting eyes on a player, talking through his strengths and weaknesses, and then pulling the trigger."

After his superlative executive performance in 2013, Ruben Amaro figures to be pulling the trigger in Philadelphia for many years to come.

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